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UN Special Rapporteur on HRD Calls Bhima-Koregaon Accused as ‘Modern Day Heroes”, Appeals For Their Release

Noor Nabi Khan |India Tomorrow

NEW DELHI—Describing 83-year-old tribal activist Fr Stan Swami and 15 other activists arrested in connection with January 2018 Bhima Koregaon case as “modern day heroes”, Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, has appealed the Indian government to release them immediately.

“They should not be in jail, they are modern day heroes,” she stated.

She made her comments while speaking at a webinar organized by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) at the launch a Human Rights Compendium Series last night, with the first report titled as “Human Rights in India: Status Report 2021- Crushing Dissent”. IAMC is a US-based organisation promoting pluralism, increasing interfaith understanding and building alliances sharing basic values.

She alleged that Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) was being misused by Indian agencies to target human rights defenders (HRD).

Reiterating that “defending human rights is not terrorism”, she said that this message be conveyed over and over. She demanded immediate release of 83-year-old tribal activist Fr Stan Swamy who suffers from Parkinson’s disease as well as 15 others whom she named in her address.

Stating that she was aware of HRDs facing problems in India, she said that she had written six letters to the Government of India with regard to HRDs after taking over her assignment in May 2020, Lawlor said that she received response only once.

“This is disappointing and counter-productive. Protecting Human rights Defenders is important for the mandate of human rights and I urge the Indian government to work towards the same”, Lawlor further said.

Jesuit priest and a well-known human rights activist Fr. Cedric Prakash, taking part in the webinar, said that Fr Stan Swamy was interrogated for 15 hours at a stretch and was quickly transferred to Mumbai, from Ranchi, in NIA’s custody. He said that Fr. Stan had completely denied having any links with the Bhima Koregaon incident and that he was also not present for the event, yet he was arrested in the same case and booked under UAPA.

Speaking about UAPA, he said, “It is draconian, anti-constitutional, anti-people, anti-democracy and is used to target HRDs, as also to sideline the poor”.

“It is time to tell the government, enough is enough”, he remarked.

Renowned human rights activist and secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Teesta Setalvad, who singlehandedly worked to provide justice to Gujarat 2002 carnage victims, speaking at the webinar, remarked, “We are at a stage where an elected majoritarian, supremacist government is misusing its power of having been elected to pass laws that make a mockery of democracy and which do not protect human rights but do the contrary”.

She also pointed out that apart from UAPA, there are other equally problematic laws in the country such as Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), National Security Act (NSA), Public safety Act (PSA) and such others which have facilitated violation of human rights on a large scale.

Besides 16 activists and scholars having been arrested in connection with the Bhima Koregaon, Setalvad pointed out that there are about 23 youths, including women and mostly Muslims, where were arrested in the aftermath of the Delhi massacre of February 2020.

Setalvad also focused on how hatred and othering had creeped into the society and propagated by the media driven by political agenda. She  blamed it on the lack of jurisprudence drawing a line between free speech and hate speech which is why hatred has continued.

She also pointed out about the communalization of the Covid-19 pandemic wherein the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi was blamed for the spread of the coronavirus in the country and the TV news media targeting an entire Muslim population in the country that had serious implications on lives and livelihoods of Muslim vendors, delivery boys and other small businesses.  She said eventually the court did not find them guilty.

Setalvad also spoke about the citizenship crisis in Assam which left 1.9 million Assamese people in a lurch, without citizenship, leading to what she calls a ‘civil death’ as without citizenship “you no longer exist in the eyes of the state”.

IAMC Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed, who conducted the programme, said the focus of the “Crushing Dissent” is on issues like the sedition law, hate speech, national security legislations, citizenship crisis in Assam and rest of the country, effect of Covid-19 pandemic on sanitation workers, migrant workers, fisher-folk and many more. Each topic is covered in a manner that gives a brief history of the issue and the laws that work in favour or against it and the jurisprudence around it, while finally concluding with a way forward for each issue.

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